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PG Wodehouse: Why India still holds a flame for the English Author

This is a repost with edits (for better readability) of an article on the NET By VINCENT DOWD, Arts correspondent, BBC News.

PG Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, was the most English novelist imaginable. His comic world was old-fashioned well before he died 45 years back (in 1975) – crammed with disapproving aunts in hats, eccentric aristocrats and wealthy young men about town getting into scrapes. But he has countless fans around the world – not least in India, a country, Wodehouse never visited.

Vincent Dowd mentions a couple of fans of author PG Wodehouse. These fans were  spotted by him hanging on for years on end in various PGW fan clubs around the World. 

One of them, ‘NAVTEJ  SARNA’, had a highly distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service. He had postings as ambassador to US. He was located, at different times, in London and Washington DC. But before that Navtej spent a short time with the Indian industrial conglomerate Tata. He recalls the final paper of the entrance exams, which he sat in 1980. Applicants were required to select one essay to write from various options supplied.

  • “I looked unhappily at this list of rather involved economic and business topics,” Navtej says, “all of which I knew I might struggle with. And then I was saved by the last one: ‘A Wodehouse a Day Keeps the Doctor Away’. So that’s what I wrote about and it got me the job (at TATA.)”
  • It might seem odd that 40 years ago a massive South Asian business concern would assume job applicants might still be familiar with such utterly English works.
  • In fact Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) became an Indian favourite even as quite a young writer – though he never went there and he barely mentions India in 71 of his novels or in his many short stories. Yet he was read there avidly and his most popular books still sell in English-language bookshops.
  • ‘I just fell in love’
    Navtej Sarna says being taught in schools in India (where the teaching was all in English for him,) with his first English  literature reading in the 1960s, wasn’t so different from that of British children a few years before read- Enid Blyton, Jennings and Billy Bunter.
  • But I began to outgrow them and then I discovered Wodehouse. It wasn’t difficult because my father had at least 40 of his books – I just fell in love with his characters and humour and especially with the way he used words. I think that may be his appeal for English-speaking Indians – his delight in the English language.
  • “We had old Penguin paperbacks and some of the original hardback copies published in London by Herbert Jenkins like Uncle Fred in the Springtime. We read them so much as a family that we had to go into the market in Dehradun and ask to get them rebound – they were falling apart.
  • “Although the English left after independence (in 1947) there was still a close intellectual linkage with India’s English-speaking administrative and professional class. The fondness for Wodehouse was part of that.
  • “I think one must admit that the world has changed and people under 40 now are perhaps less likely to read him in India. They exist in a world of iPhones and Netflix and social media – perhaps Wodehouse is too much from a different time.”

Navtej Sarna thinks an overlap remains between British humour and the humour enjoyed by Indians who grew up speaking English at home and in school.

“I know people sometimes say the world Wodehouse described hasn’t existed for many years. As I grew up, I think I realised that his world had perhaps never existed at all,” he says.

“But for instance, families such as mine would play the board game Monopoly and we would see street names such as Piccadilly and Pall Mall – it all seemed part of the same world as Wodehouse with its clubs and the bobbies in their helmets and the red London buses.” 

“There are generations of Indians who grew up with an affection for those things. Later on in life you realise that much water has flown. But it doesn’t change the fact that a book like The Code of the Woosters is an absolute classic with sheer joy in his use of language.”

  • ‘Aunt Clubs and Tea’
  • Navtej Sarna says more, “And, as I grew older I appreciated what you might call the non-ideology of his books. There is almost no politics, except in a few brief satirical mentions. It’s a never-never world without problems.”
  • The nearest you get to a tragedy is someone losing a hat or their hot-water bottle being punctured.
  • “So much of the detail has echoes in India: we have our aunts, we have clubs – and of course we love drinking tea.
  • A valet like Jeeves would also be excellent but I don’t think that’s very likely.”

KEEPING THE FLAME ALIGHT, ONLINE 

Sushmita Sen Gupta's bookcase

(pic) SUSHMITA SEN GUPTA’s book collection; Sushmita is a Wodehouse fan. (photo is a download from the net)

Another long-standing fan of Wodehouse is SUSMITA SEN GUPTA- She lives in Delhi but has been a member of the UK Wodehouse Society almost since it began. She agrees with Sarna that younger Indians now have less time for the gentle comedies of Plum Wodehouse, as he was known. (Indian fans refer to themselves as plummies.)

  1. “But the positive news is that in other ways the internet helps we plummies too. India is a vast country with a vast population so it used to be that fans could only discuss their Wodehouse addiction with their family or a few friends,” she says.
  2. “Now we have online groups and even in lockdown we’ve been keeping our Wodehouse discussions going online.
  3. “I grew up in a house stuffed with books in English and in Bengali. My mother wanted me to read English classics such as Charles Dickens. But I had two uncles who were just mad about PG Wodehouse. When I was 10 or 11, I was given one of his books – I think it was the school story The White Feather. I’ve never stopped reading him and I read the biographies too.
  4. “I remember that Wodehouse inspired my uncle to tell us the best way to say goodbye was always to say ‘ta ta, chin chin, toodeloo’. So it’s what we always said. We loved it and now I’ve been collecting his books for half a century, since I was 14.”
  5. Sushmita Sen Gupta draws a parallel with a more recent comedy popular on Indian TV.
  6. “There was an Indian version of the BBC series Yes, Minister called Ji Mantriji. The administrative class which runs the Indian bureaucracy adored it because exactly the same jokes worked here too.
    “It’s the same with Wodehouse – there’s a real sense of the absurd and little bits of satire you might not expect. Maybe before 1947 Indians enjoyed the fact he was making fun of the English ruling class – but we see ourselves in his comedy too.”
  7. Sen Gupta is looking to social media to keep interest in Plum Wodehouse going in the future.
  8. “We had a thriving Yahoo group but these days mainly we use WhatsApp. A few years from now probably the contact will be in some new way not even invented yet.
  9. “It would be sad to think his readers in India will all grow older and die off. And probably the audience will grow smaller – but I am sure there’ll always be Indians to adore his humour and language and that innocent sense of fun.”

SCREEN ADAPTATIONS OF PGW BOOKS AND THE CHARACTERS

In the mid-1960s the BBC adapted the Jeeves and Wooster stories with Dennis Price and Ian Carmichael in the lead roles of the series The World of Wooster. Between 1990 and 1993 ITV had a real hit with the series: Jeeves and Wooster, with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie widely praised for their performances. The most recent series was the BBC’s Blandings in 2013.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s decades since Wodehouse characters starred on the big screen movies.

Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price in The World of Wooster in the 1960s

(pic) Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price in the BBC TV series The World of Wooster in the 1960s; photo is a copy/paste from the net. 

John Alderton and Pauline Collins

(pic) John Alderton and Pauline Collins starred in the BBC’s adaptation of Wodehouse’s A Voice From The Past in the 1970s; photo is a copy/paste from the net. 

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster

(pic) ALAMY IMAGES-Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in ITV’s Jeeves and Wooster series in the 1990s (photo is a copy/paste from the net)

  • (Staged performances of selected works of PGW are also popular. Couple of years back, SURESH RAO, had a ring side seat at the play ‘PERFERCT NONSENSE’ staged in Bengaluru at the Venue: St. John’s Auditorium, Koramangala in south Bengaluru.
  • (This play has also been staged in LONDON and NEW DELHI too.)
  • (‘PERFECT NONSENSE’, the modern play, written by The Goodale Brothers was originally Directed By Sean Foley.)
  • This play is based on the more recent PGW-book-reprint- JEEVES AND WOOSTER OMNIBUS; Suresh reviewed and wrote on the NET about this modern play… to express his joy in witnessing the stage play at Bengaluru. The somewhat pricy ticket to the ring side seat to view the play was a gift from his son who had interned at St John’s Medical College.)

============================ REAL  LIFE  PHOTOS  OF  PGW ==========================

 

PG Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse in his prime years (copyright, Getty Images) (photo is a copy/paste from the net)

 

PG Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse at the wheel of an AC Royal Roadster at the Norfolk home of a friend in 1928 (photo is a copy/paste from the net)

 

PG Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse in 1970 (A photo from the Net)

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Suresh Rao

Mellowed out and enlightened septuagenarian. Tech savvy. Social writing is just a pastime to kill time. I keep contributing to several developmental projects in the area of engineering education, IT and Healthcare projects launched by my kith and kin. I am too lazy to write a book, 'cause I think my life itself is a book! I am also at www.facebook.com/sureshnrao
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Navneet Bakshi
6 months ago

Hello Sureshji, Can you see Ushaji’s comment now? I think because of unusual length of the comment, some safety feature of Approval from Admin had got triggered. I haven’t discussed it with the web designer assuming that it is a safety feature.

Ushasurya
6 months ago
Reply to  Navneet Bakshi

Navneet
Suresh has responded !! :))) Thank you 🙂

Ushasurya
6 months ago
Reply to  Suresh Rao

But Suresh
Even if that world did not exist…we love that “Make Believe World”…Can anyone else write like him? And That too in fantastic English ? With so much sense of humour ?
I doubt! I would like here to share with you a correspondence I had with the Editor Wodehouse Estate Mr Christopher Bellew . I had sent him one of my skits “See Yes..you shrunk the Pig ” to him by mail and honestly I believed that it will be simply IGNORED !! But I was in for a big surprise when I received a reply from him the next day itself.
Shall Post my letter and his reply here.

My letter to him with a copy paste of my blog :

Dear Editor

 

Now, how to begin my letter?

 I have never been so blank in my life and I am looking for a proper sentence to start this mail.

Well. May be I will start this mail by introducing myself.

I am one who ” eats, sleeps and breathes ” P G Wodehouse. Nothing else needs to be said, I suppose. 

 I have imagined myself to be a part of the enchanting world good old PGW had created and written short skits to keep myself happy. 

A Cardiac Surgeon who performed the bypass surgery for my husband in the year 2012 is a great fan of PGW…I discovered. That was enough for me.

He also said that he has read “Leave it to Smith ” twenty nine times. That was great.

 

It was enough to get my grey cells dance with gay abandon and though I was writing short skits, started including the Surgeon as a character. 

Yes..I am a Queen from the erstwhile kingdom in the east of the Western Ghats ( Forests in India ) in my stories ( P G W introduces me thus when he takes me to Blandings Castle. Well, yet another imposter ! ) The Cardiac Surgeon, known in my stories as C S , accompanies me in my small sojourns and we have some lovely times either it be at the Castle or at Brinkly Manor with Aunt Dahlia and Bertie and Jeeves…the escapades are unlimited. I know I cannot publish them in a book, as it is against “Your Code” and so, I have been just posting them as blogs and I have quite a handful reading these and commenting on it. They are the PGW fans. 

I was just dreaming a couple of days ago, how wonderful it would be if Pip Pip , Random House publishes these in a book! 

I know , I know, I know…aw! I am being too ambitious.

well. I am copy pasting one such story I wrote .I am sending it along with this mail.

I hope you will read and appreciate this.

Okay,

Bye till I hear from you. I do hope to hear from you. Gosh!! You may even delete this mail, for all I know ! But I honestly hope you don’t ! 

 

Sincerely yours

 

Usha . ( from India ). 

 

This was his reply

 

Dear Usha,

Thank you for getting in touch and I’m pleased that PG Wodehouse (“Plum”) gives you as much pleasure as all of us at the PG Wodehouse Society derive from his many books.

I enjoyed your short story; very much in PGW’s style with characters dashing around, imposters, butlers and a great plot. Thank you for sharing it. A chap called Ben Schott has beaten you in the race to Random House’s front door. They are publishing his “Jeeves and the Leap of Faith” in mid-October this year. 

On a more serious note, anyone using Wodehouse’s characters need the approval of the trustees of the Wodehouse Estate. To write for the private entertainment of your friends is OK but to make your stories more widely available, without permission, would get you into Hot Water and perhaps cost Big Money.  

If you would like to join the PG Wodehouse Society (UK) details of how to sign up are on the website.

Hoping this finds you, as it leaves me, in the pink,

Christopher Bellew

Website editor, PG Wodehouse Society (UK)

On 3 Aug 2020, at 16:53, usha mani <kimvadha.usha@gmail.com> wrote:

https://im.rediff.com/ajaxprism/pix/grayblock.gif

Dear Christopher Bellew 

It was wonderful getting an immediate response from you. Aw!! “Into each life some rain must fall” as Jeeves puts it !!

So, Ben Schott has beaten me in the race . Aw!! A rabbit, I have been, sleeping all these years .

 Anyway, I am happy you liked my skit.

I do understand that any publication of my short stories will ” Land me in Hot Water ” and cost Big Money.”

 

Well, the only readers are C S, my hubby and a couple of friends who are PGW fans .and who are bloggers like me.  

So…”Like patience on a monument ” I shall sit and rather twiddle my fingers.

Anyway, it was a real “Joy in the Morning ” to receive your reply- I am “Much Obliged ” for this and shall treasure this mail. 

I shall go to the Website you have mentioned.

Thank you ever so much

Good Day to you

Well Suresh.

Perhaps I will wait and approach them again after Dec. . 2020 to see if they will take up my blogs for 2021 Publication!

We all live by hopes.And my hope is like like the proverbial Dog’s tail rising up every time it is clamped down!! Ha ha ha I should add “If I am kicking and alive till then ” :)))

 

 

            
 

Navneet Bakshi
6 months ago
Reply to  Ushasurya

I didn’t know that there was any restriction against using characters of PG Wodehouse stories for giving wings to one’s imagination. There shouldn’t be such. You may have heard about Amish Tripathi’s books and even Chitra Banerjee Devikaruni’s The Palace of illusions or The forest of enchantment- but people, groups, communities and societies are not as liberal as Hinduism allows one to be.

Ushasurya
6 months ago
Reply to  Navneet Bakshi

Navneet
We can write a spoof on PGW characters but they should not be printed and published!! That is a standing rule they have had for years. Only “Random Publishing House ” has the right to publish books on PGW characters!!
Yes..I have heard about Amish Tripathi. In fact, our son gave me the first book on Siva Trilogy but somehow the book failed to grip me!! I just cannot relish Gods being made fictional characters.
I have read a lot of Indian Writers like Sashi Deshpande, Amitav Gosh, Kaveri Nambisan etc. and love them But Amish Tripati is just beyond me though they say that his books are best sellers ! ( For that matter even Arundathi Roy is SICK!!! God knows how she got the Pulitzer for her book!!) I have read Amrita pritam and Sudha Moorthy too. They are both good.

Ushasurya
6 months ago
Reply to  Suresh Rao

Thank you Suresh
I need all the luck in the world to get into Random House!! Am I that privileged ? I really do not know !!
Honestly I never expected him to reply !! Let me keep my fingers crossed !!!

Ushasurya
6 months ago

Wonderful article with lovely photographs.
It was interesting to read about Navtej Sarna!!
PGW is some one whom you can read any time, anywhere .
True, “A Wodehouse a day, keeps the Doctor away.” One can read and reread a PGW so many times and never get tired!
I feel sorry for those who just cannot appreciate his works!! They are missing something in life !!!

Navneet Bakshi
6 months ago

Matchless sense of humor he had. I haven’t read many of his books and I can’t call myself his fan but I admire his wit, his sense of humor, it’s English though and what elseit could have been? Unlike Sarna and Sushmita and millions of other Indians who studied in convent schools and many had a good collection of good English literature handed down by a parent or a relative, I had none of that. Whatever, I have read and know about English is through my own interest and efforts. Even you Rao Sir, had a great advantage of having spent four decades in America had all the exposure to best of English books and movies to help you further your interests but nevertheless, I have no regrets and I don’t want it to sound like an excuse because, I lack the will to sit and read also and love to invest more time in writing than reading.

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